My Friend Dahmer

Studio: FilmRise / MVD

May 03, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


What does a serial killer look like as a teenager in the formative years of development?

My Friend Dahmer, the feature film adaptation of Derf Backerf’s biographical graphic novel of the same name, is sure to rub some people the wrong way. By even depicting serial murderer and rapist Jeffrey Dahmer as anything more nuanced than a complete and total monster, some may say it’s a disrespectful at best, or irresponsible at worst.

But, why? It’s a narrow scope, for sure, depicting actual human tragedy in art of any kind and one that could easily go wrong if not handled in just the right way. Before the finished product has been released, or even shot, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has been disparaged for being a cheap piece of exploitation. Maybe that’s what it will be, but that shouldn’t necessarily be the default position. Similarly, by even existing, a more human exploration of a murderer, well beyond the headlines, may be seen as distasteful. That My Friend Dahmer was originally written by someone who encountered Dahmer as a youth, and refrained from depicting any of the later crimes, should alleviate that concern.

With My Friend Dahmer, we meet teenage Jeffrey (Ross Lynch) who is a social pariah in his school. By this point in his life, he’s merely off and not on a clear path to becoming one of the most prolific killers in American history. He’s content being left to his own devices, holed up in his shed-turned-laboratory where he stores animal carcasses in acid-based solutions until everything dissolves but the bones. Okay, that’s a bit unsettling.

His chemist father (Dallas Roberts) tears down his shed, worried about his son’s social development and lack of friends. Either connected to this or a separate impulse, Dahmer starts acting out in class drawing laughs and attention his way, including classmate Derf (Alex Wolff) who starts the “Dahmer Fan Club.” Derf and his friends exploit their “friendship” with the troubled Dahmer for humorous purposes. At times, there seems to be a legitimate bond forming, but Dahmer’s behavior, and his disruptive home life, stands in the way.

My Friend Dahmer is not some kind of apologia for Dahmer’s crimes, nor does it really attempt to diagnose or pinpoint the exact moment he plunged into the darkness that became his infamous legacy. It’s a portrait of a troubled boy whose life gets more troubled, and whose impulses grow more depraved as time moves on. Unfortunately, Marc Meyers’ film isn’t as formally inventive or compelling as the source material. The artwork in the comic paints a far more surrealist portrait while the movie is almost too visually sterile. And while adaptations should be able to live and breathe separate from the source, the film loses an artistic and personalized spark in the conversion. It’s unfortunately flat on the screen. Perhaps this is a choice to ensure Dahmer is neither glamorized nor exploited, but it resonates as a half measure.

The ultimate question at the heart of this story is less about Dahmer’s development – though in writing the graphic novel Backderf says he did extensive research about Dahmer’s home life through police records and interviews with those who knew him – and more about those who briefly interacted with him. The scenes that pop are the ones with his classmates, especially the young freshman he convinces to join him to prom. With the knowledge of what came after, the moments of sympathy given to young Dahmer bring chills, not because a lonely young man wasn’t worthy of them, but of who he eventually became. What must go through people’s heads when they discover a former classmate has committed heinous crimes?

As it is, the film is fine. It has punctuations of humor, like when the class drug dealer tries to sell Dahmer a joint and asks him why he has a garbage bag. Dahmer replies, “I used to pick up roadkill. I’m trying to quit.” The deadpan, while uncomfortable, is really funny in its implementation.

In the author’s note of the graphic novel release, Backderf also explains that the moment Dahmer followed through with his urges, no matter how much neglect or indifference shown him growing up by family and the other adults in his life, is when sympathy evaporates. This is handled quite well in the film version, especially in choosing to end it before he truly goes off the rails.

Don’t look to the Blu-Ray edition to shed any light on the creative process or the adaptation, either. With only an interview with star Lynch, a behind-the-scenes slideshow, and a theatrical trailer it’s about as bare bones a release as you’ll find. It’s worth seeking out, but it’s almost imperative to pick up Backderf’s graphic novel to read after viewing. That the Blu-Ray doesn’t have some kind of discussion about the source is a major missed opportunity, and one that could potentially have enriched the film.



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